MOUNT AYR — The late Dennis Tassell, Diagonal's longtime basketball coach, once paid Darwin Sobotka of Clearfield a compliment.
He told him he was the best player he ever had with no speed and no talent.
Fast forward to 2014 and Jacob Sobotka, son of Darwin and Michele Sobotka, just concluded one of the most decorated athletic careers in the history of Mount Ayr Community High School.
"Jacob must have had a recessive gene!" said Mount Ayr track coach Brad Elliott, when told of the Tassell description of Jacob's father.
At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Jacob Sobotka can run the 400 meters in 49.7, the 200 meters in 22.7 and the 800 meters in 2:05. As a sophomore, before twice suffering severe ankle injuries, he could dunk a basketball. Even last winter, he finished in the top five of his state classification in blocked shots.
As a football player headed to the University of Iowa as an invited walk-on, Sobotka owns school records in single-season passing (1,668 yards), career rushing yards (3,649), career passing (282-of-543 for 3,893 yards and 42 touchdowns) and career scoring (330 points).
Last fall, he ran for a team-high 819 yards and passed for 1,175 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was named second-team all-state linebacker in Class 1A as a two-time all-state selection.
He ran on two state championship relays (distance medley and 4x400) in helping Mount Ayr to its first boys state track championship with a Class 1A all-time best 77 points last spring.
For all of those accolades and more, Sobotka today is named the 2014 South Central Iowa Male Athlete of the Year by the Creston News Advertiser and Osceola Sentinel-Tribune.
Like last year's winner, Austin Halls of Murray, Sobotka combines a versatile set of athletic skills mixed with effective leadership ability. Coaches in his three high school sports all praised him for setting a standard of hard work and high character on all of his teams.
Likewise for classmate Erik Freed, another finalist for the award and a four-sport standout headed to Southwestern Community College to run track.
"It's great to be recognized for all-around athletic achievement," Sobotka said. "To get something for combining everything and playing in multiple sports, it's really an honor."
"I'm very proud of what Jacob has accomplished, and this is a fitting cap to his high school athletic career," said Delwyn Showalter, Mount Ayr athletic director and co-coach of the football team.
There is more to Jacob Sobotka than the athlete the opposition has to game-plan to stop on the playing field.
He finished with a 3.94 grade point average, ranking in the top four of his senior class. He was active with lead roles in the school's dramatic productions — conducted during the busy football and track seasons at Mount Ayr.
And, he was a member of the schools' philanthropic organization, HELP (Helping Enrich Lives of People). Working through the Dekko Foundation, the students help decide disbursement of grant funds to organizations that enrich the community, as well as perform community service projects.
"He's really one of those full package kids," said Mount Ayr state championship track coach Brad Elliott. "The things he values are what it takes to be successful."
"The greatest things about Jacob are his humility and his work ethic," said Derek Lambert, football co-coach and a partner with Elliott in administrating the summer lifting and athletic conditioning program. Sobotka began regularly attending those strength, speed and agility sessions the summer after his sixth-grade year.
"He always knew there was an opportunity to get better," Lambert said. "And, he always treated other athletes and coaches the right way. When you mix him with some of the other kids coming through at the same time, like Erik, we knew we had something special going on."
Although he stopped playing baseball after middle school because of conflicts with numerous football camps, coaches in three other seasons gained the benefit of this athlete with rare skills and leadership ability.
"I never really thought about specializing," Sobotka said. "Our football coaches really encouraged you to go out for more than one sport. Something to stay competing."
As it turned out, that versatility is something that caught the attention of Hawkeye football recruiters.
"Playing so many sports, they told me that once I focus on one sport year-round, my improvement will be so much greater than kids who maybe just played football, or just did football and some track," Sobotka said. "They said I fit the mold of the kids who come in as hard workers, and are athletic enough to make it."
Even though he had played in seven football playoff games in a four-year high school career, and ran on two state championship relays, Sobotka still harbored a doubt or two in the back of his mind about translating his Class 1A Iowa success to a Big Ten, Division I football program.
That is, until July 26.
Playing defensive end and on three of the four special teams, Sobotka was one of the leaders of the South's 23-7 victory in the Iowa Shrine Bowl in the UNI-Dome. He finished with a quarterback sack, a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery as he teamed with two other South Central Iowa award finalists — Trevor Frain and Keegan Longabaugh, as well as Murray standout Andrew Rider. (The other finalist was T.J. Bower of Nodaway Valley).
"He was going up against the best kids in the state," Showalter said, "and not only holding his own, but I thought he really shined in that environment. When he is able to focus on one thing, working with Chris Doyle in the weight room, and absorbing their coaching, the sky's the limit for Jake."
"That was a confidence booster for me," Sobotka said of the Shrine Bowl. "Being from a small school, you never know what you have, really. Getting to play against the top players in the state was a real confidence booster. Most of those guys are going on to play at the next level. It was a lot of fun."
Sobotka plans to major in sports and recreation business, along with business marketing or economics. But, he actually hopes to be a college football coach someday.
His coaches said he has the perfect attributes to make that happen. Lambert first noticed that the summer after Sobotka's freshman year, when there were discussions on whether to keep him at running back, or to succeed David Showalter at quarterback.
"I told him I'd like to keep him at running back, thinking we'd probably be handing off to him A LOT!" said Lambert, the team's offensive coordinator. "But Jacob said, 'Coach, I'd really like a chance to lead this team.' We had some other kids who could play running back, so then we thought we'd just transform our offense and have Jake run a lot from the shotgun. He worked extremely hard to develop his throwing skills. I never thought at the time we'd have a 1,000-yard passer out of him two years in a row. That just speaks to his work ethic."
"I loved the responsibility of handling the ball every play and getting to play in our offense," Sobotka said. "I was pretty much a tailback lined up at quarterback, but I got to throw. Our play-action plays worked well, because we had so many athletic kids."
Showalter, whose son Daniel is beginning his teaching and coaching career this fall at Northwest Webster in Manson, sees a future coach in Sobotka.
"He understands the game very well," Showalter said. "He knows why you are doing something. He is able to think a couple steps ahead. He sees the big picture well and has good leadership skills. The other thing I like about Jake is that he has a very even temperament. He doesn't get too high or too low. He keeps focused on what he needs to do."
Sobotka grew up in a family that followed sports and he remembers going to an Iowa Hawkeye home game during the 2002 Orange Bowl season. He was hooked on the Hawks, and now begins his redshirt year with an opportunity to run out of the tunnel in front of a Kinnick Stadium crowd.
Not many kids get a chance to fulfill their boyhood dream.
"He had a lot of offers but he let them know he wasn't interested," Showalter said. "In his heart, he always wanted to be a Hawk. He said he would have regretted it if he hadn't given it a shot. If he gets on the field, that would be awesome, for somebody from our program."
Sobotka is the first Division I football player from Mount Ayr since the late Clinton Riggs at Iowa State in 1985.
"He shows up and does his job every single day," said Mount Ayr basketball coach Bret Ruggles, predicting success for his former center at Iowa. "His legs are so powerful. From the hips down, he's the most impressive kid I've ever been around. That's why I think he can make it. You know that's something they are looking at, the progression he can make physically on that frame."
"I figured, why not give it a shot?" Sobotka said. "If I don't (play), I can still say I was part of the team at Iowa."
Iowa assistant Reese Morgan said when they look at walk-on candidates, they look for athletic ability, good character and someone who competes. And, have they been successful in something other than football?
Check, check, check and check.
Jacob Sobotka fits the bill perfectly for becoming one of those underrated gems on the Hawkeye squad.